(John 10: 11-18; Psalm 23: 1-6)
Imagine that you have just graduated from college – cum laude, or as a relieved family member might say, Praise the Laude. Your veterinary degree assures a certain level of job security – everyone has pets, and they need to be cared for. And your 4.0 GPA doesn’t hurt, either. The day after you give your email address to the school’s job placement office, your inbox is flooded with inquiries.
So you start scrolling through the dozens of job offers; they all look the same. That is, except for one of them. This one stands out, in an odd sort of way. You’re not entirely sure how your name got tagged for this position in the first place; perhaps they misunderstood exactly what your degree is in. The subject line states, The Job of a Lifetime. And this is what follows:
Learn perseverance and patience and enjoy the outdoors with a career in shepherding. Work with wild, unkempt animals all hours of day and night. Rain, sleet, snow, hot weather – nothing keeps you from this job you adore. Encounter exciting daily threats from wild wolves and other predators. Minimal pay with pretty much no opportunity for advancement. No vacation or pension plan included.
How quickly would you click the “delete” button on that sucker? How fast would you want to rid that email from your inbox, forget you ever got it at all?
Suffice to say that shepherding is not an career a lot of folks are gunning for these days. Truth be told, we know little about this line of work in our 21st century world. We only know what we’ve gathered from what scripture has to say to us.
And it’s interesting, don’t you think, because for whatever reason we have managed to concoct this romanticized idea of the shepherding life. Moms and Dad proudly deck their sons and daughters in shepherding garb for the annual Christmas pageant. Scripture puts shepherding on a sort of pedestal – Psalm 23, one of the more renowned and well-known passages in the Bible, is all about the Lord as shepherd. So it is with today’s other scripture, where John’s Jesus says it as plain as day: I am the good shepherd.
I am the good shepherd, he says. That word “good” in Greek is kalos, and it is a deep word, deeper than simply being “not bad.” Kalos is used to indicate something that is ordered, sound, noble, ideal, true, competent, faithful, worthy of praise. This shepherd is more than just a “good” shepherd. He is, in fact, is everything we could hope for, everything we would ever need him to be.
And in a way, it’s a kind of job description that John’s Jesus presents here, if you think about it:
- This kalos shepherd, scripture tells us, is the kind of shepherd who lays down their life for the sheep. That’s what he leads with – he’s willing to lay his life down.
- This kind of shepherd doesn’t let the sheep scatter off when the wolves come around – they keep them all together, because there is strength in numbers.
- This kalos shepherd knows their sheep – really knows them, not just what they look like but their habits, their behaviors, their idiosyncrasies. And the sheep, in turn, know their shepherd. Literally, they recognize their shepherd’s face, they can tell the difference between their shepherd’s face and someone else’s.
- And this kalos shepherd also realizes that there are other sheep out there besides their own, and they need to be brought into the fold as well, so that, when all is said and done, no sheep ever goes astray, so that in the end there will be one flock, one shepherd.
That’s a pretty daunting job description, don’t you think?
And here’s the thing that strikes me with this – yes, the focus is on the job of this kalos shepherd. But in a way, we learn more here about the sheep than the one who is leading them.
We learn, for instance, that sheep are constantly in danger – thus, the need for someone to lay down their life if needed. Someone to keep them in herds to protect them. We learn that sheep are utterly dependent on the shepherd for everything – their food, their safety, where it is they go. And we learn that sheep need to be known by the one who leads them and cares for them.
If being a shepherd seems foreign to our modern ear, being a sheep must be even moreso. We don’t like to think of ourselves as relying on anyone. We are, to a fault, fiercely independent, and we want to do things our way. It’s okay to be led by others on occasion, but at some point we want to be the ones plotting our own course.
To be honest, the image that would better apply to our scene is not really one of a shepherd but a cowboy, don’t you think? You know, John Wayne and all that. When danger comes knocking on our door, we are not one to stand back and let a protector answer it for us. We want to go out and take care of matters ourselves. We’re much more inclined to the cowboy world.
Which is why I find something that Barbara Brown Taylor once observed quite interesting. Taylor is a renowned American Episcopal priest, professor, author and theologian; and in a sermon of hers some years back, she speaks of an acquaintance who actually grew up on a sheep ranch. This friend told her that, contrary to popular opinion, sheep were not as unintelligent as people think. In fact, it was the cattle ranchers who started that rumor in the first place, because sheep don’t behave like cows, and that seemed strange to them.
Cows, it turns out, are herded from the rear, with shouts and prods. It’s the “push” from behind they respond to; that’s what keeps them moving. Sheep, on the other hand, are motivated in an entirely different way. They move when someone they know and can see goes ahead of them and leads them forward. No amount of pushing from behind will do the trick – sheep, instead, only go somewhere the trusted shepherd goes first. Goes first and shows them, literally shows them, that everything will be okay.
My friends, Jesus leads each of us as a good shepherd, not as a cowboy. Jesus doesn’t lead us with shouting and prodding, cajoling and pushing, compelling and pleading and begging. No, Jesus leads us first and foremost by knowing us – all of us, including the parts we may not want known.
Grace and I were talking this past week about how the shepherd knows all of us, and the challenge that can be; and Grace mentioned – and I thought this was a cool way of looking at it – that it reminded her in a way of how we treat social media. For those who do this sort of thing, people typically want to populate their Facebook timeline or Instagram feed with all good things – fun pictures, cool posts, the good side of their life, the best image of themselves. We do this because that’s the side of us we want others to see; that’s the image we want to project. Even though life rarely reflects that picture-perfect image. There’s a whole other side of our life that we’d rather not put out to the public – the side of doubt, of pain, of brokenness, of uncertainty.
And yet – when Jesus says I am the good shepherd, I know my own, he is telling us that it’s that other side, the side we don’t want seen, that Jesus also loves. Because he, the good shepherd, makes a point of knowing, really knowing, his own. And he loves all of us.
And because he really knows his own, and because he loves all of us, he goes ahead of us in plain sight, so we can see it is him there, our trusted, good shepherd, and follow him where he leads.
And I guess that’s the thing I most want us to hear today – especially our three confirmands William, Graham and Garrett. Guys, today marks the conclusion of your confirmation journey, but as we’ve talked about, a whole new journey is beginning – and that’s the journey of your walk with the good shepherd. And this good shepherd not only loves you, but loves all of you. Loves those parts of you that you don’t want others to see, that you wouldn’t post on Instagram. This God of ours who loves us is prepared to lead you for the rest of your life – and lead you not as a cowboy but as a shepherd. Pulling you out of the mud, leading the way, loving your full self. Going ahead of you first to show you that everything will be okay.
It’s that way for all of us, is it not? That, despite every instinct in our body, despite our best intentions, we simply cannot go it on our own. We long to be led by someone who is willing to go before us and show us the way. We need to be loved by someone who loves every side of us, especially that side we keep others from seeing.
And that is when we understand the beauty of Jesus as our good shepherd and us as his sheep. That we are the ones who need him; that we are lost, and through Jesus are found. That all our efforts, all our best intentions will not, cannot make things right on their own. That is why we are the sheep, and thank God that is why Jesus is the shepherd.
I don’t envy him the gig, to be honest. Shepherding comes with all kind of job hazards, perils and pitfalls. Very few guarantees. For the life of me I don’t know why he got a hold of that shepherding job description all those years ago and chose to sign up for it anyway.
Except that maybe – just maybe – it was an entirely different job description. Perhaps one that read something like this:
Enjoy the wonder and beauty of creation with a career in shepherding. Develop meaningful relationships with easily-lost but big-hearted creatures. Large capacity for love, grace and mercy required. Expect to not always see the results of your labors – but expect lives to nevertheless be changed. No pay or benefits, but the experience is priceless.
I’m reminded of the little girl who once misquoted the opening line of the 23rd Psalm: The Lord is my Shepherd, she proudly recited, that’s all I want.
Seems to me, she heard it just right. Indeed, that is all we want. That’s all any of us could ever need.
In the name of God the Creator, Redeemer and Sustainer, thanks be to God – and may all of God’s people say, AMEN!
* Because sermons are meant to be preached and are therefore prepared with the emphasis on verbal presentation, the written accounts occasionally stray from proper grammar and punctuation.
 This bit of info about sheep recognizing their shepherd’s face – which fascinates me – was shared in a conversation with Grace, as she recounted a sermon preached on Psalm 23 by David Lewicki, former Associate Minister at Marble Collegiate Church in New York. In preparation for his sermon, David had a conversation with two shepherds at a local farmer’s market, where he learned this and other cool sheep facts.
 Feasting On The Word, Year B, Vol. 2, 450.